Revisiting”Something Wicked This Way Comes” as a Grown-up

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I’ve loved Ray Bradbury’s fiction since my early teens, when I first read “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” from The Martian Chronicles in English class. I was floored by Farhenheit 451, delighted by Dandelion Wine, and mesmerized by Bradbury’s myriad short stories. His Zen and the Art of Writing is still in my top-five writing books of all time. However, I contend that his most underappreciated work is his “Halloween novel,” Something Wicked This Way Comes.

I was 15 or 16 when I first encountered this novel, recommended by a classmate of mine. The imagery was indelible, and even if the exact details of the plot escaped me in the intervening years, the mental images of the midnight train and the dark carnival arriving at 3 a.m. have been forever lodged in my imagination.

A few weeks back, I listened to an episode of The Great Books Podcast (highly recommended podcast, by the way), covering this novel and its themes. The discussion was so intriguing, I decided it was time to revisit this story, about 25 years after my initial reading.

Boy, am I glad I did.

Spinning the Carousel

The set-up of the book is spooky and enchanting: a few days before Halloween, childhood best friends Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade encounter a lightning-rod salesman who warns them that a big storm is coming and that they should get prepared. Soon, they see a flyer for “Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show,” a mysterious carnival on a train that chugs its way to the outskirts of town at 3 a.m., the “witching hour.” It becomes clear that this carnival has a sinister and perhaps even demonic pull on the hearts of some of the residents of Green Town, Illinois, and soon Jim and Will start to see and feel the effects of the carnival themselves.

One of the biggest dangers of Cooger and Dark’s carnival are the rides and attractions that seem to grip people’s hearts and souls: the carousel that can make people older or younger, depending on which direction it spins; the hall of mirrors that can magnify the pain and isolation one feels; the Dust Witch who sees the future and reads the mind; the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, encased in a tomb of ice. These sideshow attractions take on a shadow of foreboding as they seem to embody the things that tempt the main characters the most (recalling to mind an idea that Stephen King would later take up in Needful Things, though I’m not sure that the one directly influenced the other). Bradbury explores the nature of temptation, the hunger of discontentment, and the danger of giving up almost anything to satisfy your deepest desires.

Without giving too much away, the plot of the story involves Will and Jim recognizing that something’s unsettling and wrong about the carnival and its inhabitants, trying to stop their plans themselves, and, when that becomes impossible, eventually enlisting the help of Will’s father, Charles Halloway. Halloway is described as a prematurely “old man” of 54 (!) who works as a janitor at the library, is a lover and reader of books, and becomes the only hope the boys have to stand up against the forces of Mr. Dark (the “Illustrated Man”) and his carnival troupe.

The book is a showcase of fantasy-horror, with lyrical prose that evokes startling and beautiful imagery. Bradbury is sometimes pigeon-holed as just being a “sci-fi guy” or a “dystopian writer.” His ability to paint a picture of sublime small-town Americana that suddenly veers into gothic horror is breath-taking.

Staring Into the Mirrors

Over the last few years, I’ve revisited works of art and media that I remembered loving in my youth and young adulthood. As I’ve done so, I’ve noticed how certain ideas or characters hit me in an entirely different way as a middle-aged, married man than they did two decades prior. This book was another one of those instances.

For one thing, there were subtle suggestions or references to sexuality in a few chapters that totally sailed over my head as a young and blessedly naive teenager. This is not at all to say that the book is crass or crude; Bradbury is able to trace the faintest outline of an idea so that the reader understands his implication, without needing to be explicit or base. As a sheltered teenaged boy eager to move along the creepy plot, I flew right past certain dialogue exchanges and paragraphs without realizing what was really being talked about or its implications (for example, Jim peeping through a window and seeing something he shouldn’t have, planting seeds of lust in his heart). While one could suggest that such references are unnecessary (and I don’t disagree totally), it could also be argued that those moments show us another picture of the enticement of sin, without debasing the reader with lurid description. At any rate, I was a bit shocked, reading these scenes with adult eyes.

However, the big shift in my reading experience was being able to understand Charles Halloway so much better. In my youthful mind, he was simply a wise mentor character, a heroic father, but little more; I was too busy putting myself in the shoes of young Will, scared by a wilder and weirder world than he was ready for. Now, I noticed different things about Charles. I related to his frustration with the passage of time, as his mind and body disagreed on how old he really was. I recognized with bitter familiarity the fleeting temptation of the carnival’s flyer advertising “the most beautiful woman in the world” and that split-second of hesitation, of imagining, before Charles dismissed the images and thoughts it conjured in his mind. I heard my own voice in his discussion with his wife about how he wishes he were a younger father, instead of there being a 40 year difference between himself and Will (a feeling that especially hit home as we’ve recently welcomed our third daughter, halfway-through my 40th year). I felt empathy as Charles seemed to wonder who he really was, what his life was good for, as he considered his work and his place in the world.

These are all questions and thoughts and emotions that may be most clearly felt and understood and written by a middle-aged man (Bradbury was 42 when the book was published). As such, it seems that it’s only now, in this second reading, that I have truly begun to understand this book.

“It is my own smile.”

In the end, love wins the day. Not in a cliched or bumper-sticker-style way. Love wins, because joy wins. Acceptance and contentment and gratitude wins. Sometimes, the best thing a middle-aged father can do to fight off the dark fog that creeps around his life is to smile, to laugh loudly, to embrace his wife and children, and to be grateful for what he’s been given.

And for the thirteen-year-old boy, looking out with trepidation at the big, bad world, perhaps his superpower, his totem against the darkness, is realizing that he would be blessed to become that kind of “old man” one day.

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If you’ve never read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, I would highly encourage it. It’s a creepy and beautifully-written “genre” novel that touches on deep ideas and themes about the human experience. It’s easy to miss because it’s one of Bradbury’s lesser-known works, but it surely deserves a place of honor alongside his more popular novels.

And if you *have* read it before, and it’s been a little while, maybe give it another shot and see what new things pop out. You never know what you might discover!

This experience has inspired me to go back and revisit other books I read years ago to see if my perspective has changed. I don’t know how often I’ll get to do so, but whenever I do, I’ll come back here to tell you all about it, deal?

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Have you read this book? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Booktober 30th: “Side By Side” by Ed Welch

Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love: Welch, Edward T.:  0884618492309: Amazon.com: Books

[This is Day 30 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for one more recommendation!]

What It Is: A short and very practical book about “one another” ministry within the Church.

Why You Should Read It: While God does give some as pastors and teachers to help build up the body of believers, the nuts-and-bolts day-to-day ministry of the church isn’t done by paid professionals, but by the everyday believer in the pews. Welch lays out practical encouragements to teach believers how to “build up one another in love” and minister to each other’s spiritual and emotional needs. If you want to know how to create a culture of love and service and discipleship in your church, whether you’re in a particular church office/role or just a healthy and active member of the body, get this book and put it into practice.

Booktober 29th: “The Keto Reset Diet” by Mark Sisson

The Keto Reset Diet Named a New York Times Bestseller | Primal Kitchen®

[This is Day 29 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]

What It Is: A basic introduction to primal/keto eating from one of the most respected names in this particular area of nutrition coaching.

Why You Should Read It: If you’re a sugar addict like I am, and you’ve struggled with weight like I do, the ketogenic diet may be a good fit for you. But it can be done really badly, even dangerously (like any strict eating plan), so having a sensible on-ramp is the best way to approach it. Mark Sisson gives you that on-ramp by laying out the basic ideas and science behind a ketogenic approach to eating, and then he walks the reader through a 3-week process of dialing back carb intake, fine-tuning some non-food lifestyle factors that may affect your ability to restrict carb intake, and then tweaking the dials a bit in the last week to get you ready for full-blown keto eating. I’ll admit, I read this book, tried to apply it, and then fell off the wagon after a few months of “going keto.” Not an uncommon thing–but the fact of it is, when I’m “on-plan,” I feel better and I lose weight. Kicking the sugar addiction is hard. But if you’re ready to commit to something serious in order to curb the habit, Mark Sisson may have your answer.

Booktober 28th: “Running For Mortals” by John Bingham and Jenny Hadfield

Running for Mortals: A Commonsense Plan for Changing Your Life With Running:  Bingham, John, Hadfield, Jenny: 9781594863257: Amazon.com: Books

[This is Day 28 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]

What It Is: A book about the hobby/sport of distance running that is written for the couch-to-5K’er instead of the elite athlete.

Why You Should Read It: John “The Penguin” Bingham and Jenny Hadfield wrote for Runner’s World magazine for years. Bingham in particular became a champion for the plodders, walkers, and waddlers (like me), and through his words he helped to make the running community open and accessible to the less-than-fit who were interested in discovering a new hobby on the open road. This book is the perfect entry-point for people who have never really done any distance running (or run/walking, or just plain walking) and perhaps feel intrigued yet intimidated by the idea. They talk about how to get started, what a training program might look like depending on your physical level, how to eat, how to rest, and what gear you might need. It would be easy to get overwhelmed by the flood of information on the internet. Books like this take the reader by the hand and say, “Let’s just take a walk and get started!” Like the running community itself, Bingham and Hadfield welcome readers from all backgrounds to join the fun and discover something new about themselves in the process.

Booktober 27th: “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman

[This is Day 27 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]

What It Is: A cultural jeremiad written 35 years ago about the power and allure of news-as-entertainment that is still surprisingly applicable to our image-driven culture.

Why You Should Read It: While Postman didn’t anticipate the Internet age, his critiques and warnings have proven all the more applicable. Postman takes the idea of “the medium is the message” and argues that at some point, the medium starts to undercut or subvert the message, which has a devastating effect on public discourse. His warnings about television seem almost quaint now, but you can extrapolate the trajectory out and see that he was certainly on the right track. I still think about some of his arguments about the mental and emotional weight of daily news updates that don’t actually give you actionable information. While a bit outdated now, there’s still a lot of core ideas here worth exploring. You can see the foundations of the work of current cultural observers like Cal Newport and Tony Reinke.

Booktober 26th: “The Pastor’s Justification” by Jared C. Wilson

The Pastor's Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and  Ministry: Wilson, Jared C., Ayers, Mike: 9781433536649: Amazon.com: Books

[This is Day 26 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]

What It Is: An encouraging reminder to pastors and those in full-time ministry that they are first and foremost disciples and sheep themselves, and that their true hope of peace, security, and fulfillment is found in Jesus’ completed work, not their many efforts and accomplishments in ministry.

Why You Should Read It (And/Or Give it Away): This book is a balm to the wounds and a cup of cool water to the dry throat of pastors and elders who are laboring in ministry and growing weary and burnt out. Wilson writes with such compassion toward that group because he was there himself–exhausted and heartsick from years of doing, doing, doing. When he finally stopped and threw himself desparately into the arms of grace, he was reminded that his security and hope is found in what Jesus has accomplished on his behalf, not on his performance or perfection. Even if we pastors know this to be true mentally or abstractly, it’s a different thing for us to believe it from the heart. Wilson reminds us that we serve best when we serve from a place of full reliance on God’s grace. If you’re a pastor, read this book. If you know a pastor, get them this book. There are still a few more days in “Pastor Appreciation Month.” Grab a copy or two for the shepherds who serve and love you and your family.

Booktober 25th: “Confessing the Faith” by Chad Van Dixhoorn

Confessing the Faith: A reader's guide to the Westminster Confession of  Faith by Chad B. Van Dixhoorn

[This is Day 25 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]

What It Is: A lay-friendly exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, with commentary on how each article is grounded in Scriptural truth and has application to the Christian life.

Why You Should Read It: I’m not quite halfway through this one, but I can easily recommend it. Upon the recommendation of a dear friend who gave it to me as a gift, I’m reading it slowly, section by section, giving myself time to meditate on the insights provided. Dr. Van Dixhoorn walks the reader through each point of each article of the confession, providing the Scriptural basis for each statement and describing the logical progression and thought processes of the Westminster Divines’ argumentation. Each section begins with the original text of the article sub-section, next to a modernized version of the verbiage, followed by Dr. Van Dixhoorn’s analysis and application. Rather than being a dry and dusty academic tome, this one has warmed my heart and encouraged me in my devotion to the Lord. Strong recommendation here.

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Hey y’all, just a quick non-Booktober-related note:

This is my 500th post on this blog. I’m…stunned. Stunned and very pleased. I’ve been blogging in various places for the last…golly, has it really been 17 years?!? But I started this particular blog about 7 years ago, and only in the last couple of years has it really taken off in terms of views and readers. It’s been pretty exciting seeing the engagement–knowing that people actually read and care about what I write is thrilling in a way I never expected.

THANK YOU SO MUCH to the readers and commenters who keep coming back, and by doing so keep *me* coming back. I hope this blog and my words are a blessing and an encouragment to you. Feel free to drop me a hello in the comments, especially if you’ve never done so before. I’d love to thank you by name, if I can.

Here’s to another 500 posts!

–d.

Booktober 24th: “Ella Minnow Pea” by Mark Dunn

[This is Day 24 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]

What It Is: Set on Nollop (an island off the coast of South Carolina), a place of particular literary notoriety, this novel is composed of mailed notes and messages that become more and more off-kilter as particular letters of the alphabet are declared illegal by the town elders.

Why You Should Read It: I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for literary gimmickry, and this funny little novel has a pretty unique hook. Set on the island named for the person who coined the sentence that uses all 26 letters, it’s a story about how tradition can become oppressive and totalitarian control can grow ludicrous and untenable. As letters begin to fall off the island’s monument to its namesake, the people of Nollop are mandated never to use those letters in speech or writing again, upon threat of physical punishment and ultimately banishment. Since this is a “novel in letters,” the narrator/protagonist must use increasingly strained word choices and spelling in order to communicate the events of the town to her reader. This one is a hoot. Check it out.

Booktober 23rd: “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Wikipedia

[This is Day 23 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]

What It Is: A sprawling magical urban fantasy and alternative history novel set in early-19th-century England, in which two magicians’ battle of egos and enchantments lead to disastrous consequences for all involved

Why You Should Read It: This strange and marvelous novel has been described as a cross between Jane Austen and JK Rowling, with a little Charles Dickens thrown in. I think that is a fair analogy. This book has the tone and feel of classic literature, but with the added layer of hundreds (!) of footnotes referencing books and writers who exist only in the world of the story. As a fan of copious footnotes, this was incredibly addicting to me. The story seems to weave in elements of Romantic poets, medieval myths, and historical biography in a way that feels bizarre and yet believable. The main focus of the story is the friendship and eventual rivalry between the conservative and traditional Mr. Norrell and the young upstart magician Jonathan Strange. The battle of these two mindsets and worldviews spills over to change the course of the lives of everyone in their spheres. Cozy up with this one by the fire this winter. It’ll be a treat.

Booktober 22nd: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

Pride & Prejudice | The Bookloft

[This is Day 22 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]

What It Is: A 19th-century British drawing-room comedy about upper-class society in which good manners and a good marriage are the ultimate goal of a young woman’s life.

Why You Should Read It: The story of the Bennett sisters and their various loves and heartaches is the most popular of Austen’s books these days, and for good reason. There is something recognizably human in all of these characters, so much that they’re not simply abstract figures on the page but feel authentic and familiar. Jane Austen is a skilled wordsmith, and her use of language is impeccable–the dialogue pops throughout the book. But the reason you should read the book instead of settling for the handful of (admittedly very good) film adaptations is that the narration and commentary throughout the novel are bathed in Austen’s sardonic wit and low-key sarcasm. You miss a lot of this when you watch a film version. This book is a lot funnier than I expected it to be when I first started reading it. Even if you don’t think this type of fiction is your “thing” (and ESPECIALLY if you find yourself disinterested because you consider it a “girl book”), you should definitely check it out.